Sunday, June 30, 2013

Fortenberry on the Bible's Political Theory

Frequent American Creation commenter Bill Fortenberry sent me a link to an article he just wrote on the Bible's political theory. The article argues "the notion of popular sovereignty can be traced to the government of ancient Israel as recorded in the pages of the Bible."

I, for one, don't "see" principles of republican self government or political liberty in the pages of the Bible. But I understand that many ideas didn't just pop up out of nowhere during the Enlightenment but brewed for a long time previously in Christendom.

Republicanism traces to the Ancient noble pagan Greco-Roman tradition. Yet, Christianity was birthed there. (Well Christianity emerged in Rome after they transmogrified from a noble republic to an ignoble empire.)

But Mr. Fortenberry is not the first person to "see" republicanism in the pages of the Old Testament. The Whig propagandists -- indeed even Thomas Paine -- made similar arguments. Now, Paine, that Deist he who rejected every word of the Bible as special revelation, knew he was propagandizing.

But, perhaps caught up in the Whig-republican-revolutionary zeitgeist, seemingly sincere ministers preached something similar in their political sermons.

As Dr. Gregg Frazer reacts to them:
The sermons seem to depict God's role as something similar to Rousseau's legislator; He disinterestedly established the foundational law for the benefit of society, but did not live under it. In their version and consistent with democratic theory, God established it all [quoting Langdon's sermon] "for their happiness" rather than to achieve the fulfillment of a sovereignly determined plan. By their account, God submitted the laws to the people for their approval and acceptance (as per Rousseau's legislator). 
-- Frazer, PhD thesis, pp. 393-94.


Mark in Spokane said...

Thanks for posting this, Jon. As I have said elsewhere, I think that a key part of the Christian justification for the Revolution and its underlying theory was predicated on a view of British activities in the colonies as a usurpation of powers not constitutionally granted to the British Crown in Parliament. From the colonists point of view, it was the Crown in Parliament that was instituting a revolution, and the colonists were for the most part defending their traditional rights & liberties. Of course, the British had a different view of what was happening (Samuel Johnson's essay Taxation No Tyranny is a great example of the British view) but on the American side of the argument the excesses of the British regime had destroyed its legitimacy. That is essentially the intellectual background of the Declaration of Independence.

Thus, for Christian Patriots, they weren't violating God's commands to obey their earthly sovereign. Their earthly sovereign was violating God's commands in how he exercised his authority by seeking to circumvent the law (this ties in to Samuel Rutherford & the Puritan idea of Lex Rex Est -- the law is king).

wsforten said...

I agree, Mark, and I'm looking forward to learning Jon's thoughts on the actual content of my article.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Me too.

The core argument is that God gives sovereignty to the people, not the king or the government.

The Biblical proof offered is that when Israel asks God for a king*, God is very uset, but gives them one anyway. [Saul, who's a real butthole, IOW, just about average as kings go.]

*First Book of Samuel, Chapter 8.

The form of government before Saul was indeed law-based, administered by a somewhat republican [elected, representative] form of government.

That's the argument, anyway, and must be engaged on its own terms, not Dr. Frazer's or anybody else's theology. What matters is what they believed in the 18th century, not what armchair theologians say in the 21st.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The Suzerainty Treaty argument re sovereignty is a strong one, and invoking Grotius and Vattel in its support is an excellent scholarly move*. A joint sovereignty, as it were, is possible--God's rules [the Mosaic Covenant], but with the people's consent and retention of sovereignty. [Which they later withdraw when they ask for a king.]

BTW, Bill, I think it's unnecessary to answer the objection on how the ruling elders were elected. The Roman Republic's senators were appointed, not elected. A republic need not be a democracy.

*"This kind of treaty relationship was recognized by philosophers like Grotius, Pufendorf and Vattel to be one in which "the inferior Power remains a Sovereign State" and in which "the weaker Power may exercise the rights of sovereignty so long as by so doing no detriment is caused to the interests or influence of the Suzeraine Power."
Grotius, for example, described a suzerainty treaty when he spoke of a league between sovereigns "where by the express Articles of the League some lasting Preference is given from one to the other; that is, where one is obliged to maintain the Dominion and Honour of another." He explained that people bound by this type of treaty are still free and then concluded that "If then a Nation bound by such a Covenant, remains yet free, and not subjected to the Power of another, it follows, that it yet retains its Sovereignty."

jimmiraybob said...

For some reason I thought that there'd be more activity on this one.

Whether or not someone today can squeeze a republican theory of government out of the Old Testament, how many of the political philosophers developing the political theory of the new American republic made the same argument?

jimmiraybob said...

And, to be a bit more specific, how many of the founders/framers were explicitly advocating that the national government be modeled on a ancient Hebrew Republic? And how did they frame the argument?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Wish I had more time to contribute here. There were, as noted in the original post, ministers of the Founding era (i.e., from the Sandoz collection) who argued the Hebrews had a "republic."

So did Paine. And other Whig propagandists/theistic rationalists and deists like Jefferson, Franklin, J. Adams likewise rewrote the history of the Old Testament to accord with Whig-republican-political liberty doctrines.

Their reason taught them that there were good, rational men in all world religious systems whose reason could "see" these principles, everywhere applicable to all times, be it in republican Rome, republican Israel, or republican Great Spirit worshipping America.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And again, I know this is a weird analogy, but, as I see it, finding "republicanism" in the Old Testament is like Elizabeth Clare Prophet saying the Bible/Jesus "properly understood" teaches "let he who is without KARMA cast the first stone."

wsforten said...

Well, Jon, I think that I'm detecting a bit of irrational bias. Of course, you are free to be irrational if you like, but I was hoping for some more constructive dialogue. So far, your only comments have been to the effect of:

1. I "see" republicanism in the Old Testament.
2. Thomas Paine "saw" republicanism in the Old Testament.
3. Therefore my vision of republicanism in the Old Testament is just unwitting propaganda.


1. Paine, Jefferson, Franklin and Adams found republicanism in the Old Testament.
2. You think that they rewrote the Old Testament in order to make this find.
3. Therefore my discovery of republicanism in the Old Testament is just a similar rewriting of the Bible.


1. I found "republicanism" in the Old Testament.
2. Elizabeth Clare Prophet found things in the Bible that obviously are not there.
3. Therefore "republicanism" is not really in the Bible.

I hope that you can see that none of these arguments are the least bit helpful to me or to anyone else in critiquing my work. I would really like to know what you think of my research on its own merit. It would be extremely helpful if you would answer questions such as: Do you think that I have appropriately represented the biblical teaching found in the passages that I cited? Do you think that I have accurately conveyed the record of Christian philosophers on these topics? I suspect that you may answer in the negative to these two questions, and I would appreciate the opportunity to examine your reasons so that I may improve my understanding of this topic.

By the way, I find it very interesting that you have so readily admitted that the idea that ancient Israel had a republican government was prevalent among the Americans of the Revolution. Your accusation that Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and several revolutionary ministers found republican principles in the Bible only strengthens my claim. Admittedly, you have expressed your opinion that these men rewrote the Bible in order to make that discovery, and that is the very point of contention that I would like to discuss. I have presented evidence to support the position that the founders were actually correct in their conclusion that biblical Israel had a republican government. What evidence can you present to support your proposition to the contrary?

jimmiraybob said...

ws, out of curiosity, why do you expend so much effort trying to make the early Deity-based, Jewish tribal system conform to the better understood (and far more cited among the founders and framers) classical Greek and Roman models? Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't also give a shout out to the Lycian Confederation, whom many a classical Greek and Roman author held in high esteem.

Regardless of whether the early Hebrew theocracy can be made into a republican system, and that is highly contentious among scholars and I'm not the least convinced, it is infinitesimally unimportant in light of the foundation created by the ancient Greek and Roman writers with respect to political theory and the science of government.

Throughout the Medieval, when these writings became more widely available and circulated and commented upon, and certainly into the early modern, anyone writing about politics and government started and finished with Aristotle and Cicero and company and examination of the many historical systems of government and political relationships.

When you write,

“These five chapters of the book of Exodus can be viewed as being equivalent in nature to the Constitution of America. They form the foundation upon which all the other laws of the nation were established.”

I see a problem. The constitution is quite specific in laying out the secular structure of governance and of the roles and responsibilities and qualifications of those who would govern. It is a document built on study of historic democratic republics, from the League of Lycia, to Athens, to Rome, to the Italian city states and more. It was a mix of this practical examination as well as the philosophical and theoretical aspects of governance that came together in the arguments for a constitution and the chosen form and nature of government. It is a result of a mix of the contemplative and the practical – and Cicero smiled. And, most of all, it was/is experimental and flexible enough to allow for petition and amendment and improvement and, intended or otherwise, provides a framework and path for true egalitarian representation free from priests and shamans and soothsayers and old hatreds and bigotries - and the Catholics and the Jews and the unorthodox and the unbelievers smiled. There was/is no threat of divine punishment, just the possibility of mundane failure. It is not based on divine command and offers no coercion based on the wrath of an angry God.

As to whether or not you adequately demonstrate that the early Hebrews had a republic or a political theory as expressed in the OT, there's a book that I came across recently (and I'm sure there are others) that finds no political theory in the OT. It's entitled, In God's Shadow Politics in the Hebrew Bible written by Michael Walzer. If you're looking for valid scholarly critique of your thesis you might start there.

I haven't read it yet, but from the author's bio and from what I can glean from review's it's got the kind of heft that you might appreciate. Maybe you could invite the author to participate.

Jonathan Rowe said...


The piece that linked to with quotations from Dr. Frazer answers your question (though I'm sure not to your satisfaction).

As for the actual politics of the Ancient Israelites, Dr. Frazer notes:

-- First, as [Robert] Kraynak pointed out, “the biblical covenant is undemocratic: God is not bound by the covenant and keeps His promises solely out of His own divine self-limitation.” Second, “(t)he element of voluntary consent is missing from the covenant with Israel….There is nothing voluntary or consensual about the biblical covenant; and the most severe punishments are threatened by God for disobedience.” Third, “insofar as the covenant with Israel sanctions specific forms of government, the main ones are illiberal and undemocratic;” including patriarchy, theocracy, and kingships established by divine right. Fourth, “the Bible shows that God delivers the people from slavery in Egypt and supports national liberation, not for the purpose of enjoying their political and economic rights, but for the purpose of putting on the yoke of the law in the polity of Moses.” Fifth, “the content of the divine law revealed to Moses consists, in the first place, of the Ten Commandments rather than the Ten Bill of Rights, commanding duties to God, family, and neighbors rather than establishing protections for personal freedom.” Finally, the combination of judicial, civil, ceremonial, and dietary laws imposed on the people “regulate all aspects of religious, personal, and social life.” The history of Israel, therefore, had to be radically rewritten to provide support for the demands of political liberty and for republican self-government. --

-- Ibid, pp. 18-19, quoting Robert Kraynak, "Christian Faith and Modern

Jonathan Rowe said...

One big difference is see between the way Paine, Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin "saw" republicanism in the OT and the way (as far as I understand) Mr. Fortenberry and other Christian Nationalists see it, is that the above 4 wove the narrative into an inclusive, universalistic Enlightenment rationalist dogma that saw "republicanism" in the stories of all reasonable men of the ages, Ancient and Modern.

So with the proposals for the Great Seal you had not just Moses and the Israelites, but also Hercules, and the Hengist and Horsa.

Franklin also "saw" at least a marginal amount of confederal republicanism in the way that the American Indians dealt with one another, leading to the PC revision that we stole the idea of the Constitution from them.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And no, I'm sorry, I haven't had time to delve through Mr. Fortenberry's work on the matter.

I haven't even read Eric Nelson's book on the matter, which I've leaved through (if Tom, Bill & others want some scholarly ammo or confirmation FOR their side, I'd suggest looking there).

I've got this extremely complicated grant work that I'm doing for my college that is taking up lots of my time. As a libertarian, this public grant confirms almost all of my previously held suspicions and criticisms about government bureaucracies. That's probably at least one thing on which Mr. Fortenberry and I can agree. :)

wsforten said...

My research shows that Kraynak is mistaken. There are many covenants in the Bible, so I'm not entirely sure which covenant he is referring to, but I will assume that his comments were made in reference to the Mosaic Covenant since that is the context in which you provided the quote.

In that case, the biblical covenant is very democratic, and God is bound to that covenant by the if...then conditional which was presented in Exodus 19 as well as by the promise to destroy the enemies of Israel which was presented in Exodus 23. I pointed out in my article that the element of voluntary consent is quite prominent in this covenant, and there is not a single punishment threatened for failure to agree to the covenant. There is not a single mention in Scripture of God establishing a patriarchy for the nation of Israel, and I have shown that the divine right of kings was a foreign concept to them.

Furthermore, God did not bring Israel out of Egypt in order to put them under the yoke of the Law. His purpose for bringing them out of Egypt is clearly stated in Leviticus 25:38 as being to give them the land of Canaan and to be their God. The Constitution did not originally contain a Bill of Rights, and there were several founders who thought that such a document would be detrimental to the nation. And finally, the original portion of the law contained in Exodus 19-24 did not regulate all aspects of life.

As for your comparison of my views with those of Paine, Jefferson, Fanklin and Adams, I think that it would be best if I wait for you to actually read my position before I express any disagreement with your conclusion.

Now, in spite of the fact that you have not read my article, you provided a link which you claimed answered my questions. At that link, you presented a sermon by Samuel Langdon in which you highlighted the points which you thought were unscriptural. If you were to take the time to read my research, you would find most of those points to be well supported by the Scriptures, but let me briefly address each of the highlights that you made.

First, you apparently took exception to Langdon's use of the word "constitution" in reference to the Law of the Bible. There is no need for such an objection. The word "constitution" can be properly used in reference to any set of laws, and it was commonly used in this manner throughout the 18th century. Langdon was obviously using this term to refer to the permanent Law which God prescribed for the nation as opposed to the temporal laws which the various rulers established through their administrations.

Next, you objected to his claim that Israel had a senate which was composed of men chosen by the people, that the whole congregation voted on various points of law and that their "government therefore was a proper republic." All of these claims are proven to be true in my article. The Bible clearly states that the elders were chosen by the people and that the whole assembly voted on certain points of law. Langdon is therefore correct in stating that the government of Israel was a "proper republic."

You also disagreed with Langdon's claim that the people of Israel had a right to appoint officers and judges. In voicing this disagreement, however, you substituted part of Langdon's argument with ellipses points. The text which you so conveniently ignored was:

"according to that order given in Deut. 16. 18, 19—

Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates which the Lord thy God giveth thee throughout thy tribes; and they shall judge the people with just judgment: thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift; for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous."

wsforten said...

Obviously, this proves Langdon's claim to be true. The people not only had a right to appoint their own judges and officers, but they were actually commanded to do so.

Your next objection was to Langdon's claim that "from these courts an appeal was allowed in weighty causes to higher courts," but the evidence for this practice is found in Deuteronomy 1:17 where we read of Moses instructing the judges that "the cause that is too hard for you, bring it unto me, and I will hear it."

I must confess that I do not understand what you are objecting to in your final highlight, but I think that I have provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the position held to by yourself and Gregg Frazer is not consistent with the record of Scripture.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Like I said:

"The piece [I] linked to with quotations from Dr. Frazer answers your question (though I'm sure not to your satisfaction)." EMPHASIS ADDED.

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